The House of War

Recently acquired by Penguin Books, South Africa, The House of War is a novel about the search for the ruins of an ancient Greek city founded by Alexander the Great in today’s war-torn northern Afghanistan.  The book draws its inspiration from Michael Ondaatje, Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Sebastian Faulks and Ken Follett.  Peopled with warlords, Al Qaeda renegades and NATO troops, The House of War is a psychological thriller, a spy story, a romance, and a quest.

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Tashkent, Uzbekistan:  When Al Qaeda terrorists shoot dead two American soldiers in a bar, Sebastian Richards, a brilliant 40-something British academic, is unexpectedly brought face to face with the sinister truth of his own life that he has hidden for over 30 years.

He had come to Tashkent to fulfill a lifelong dream to make a documentary film and write a best-selling book on Alexander and his wife Roxane.  The secret to their love, Sebastian believes, is held in a long-lost copy of Alexander’s Royal Diaries which was stored for millennia in the ancient city of Ay Khanoum in northern Afghanistan.

He is accompanied by the attractive, fiercely-independent American producer, Claire Finch and her crew.  From the moment they set out they are aware of a simmering menace that stalks their every move.  But the goal of finding the Royal Diaries and making the film of a lifetime drives them deeper and deeper into the heartland of Asia as they follow the trail of Alexander’s armies in 327 BC.

Sebastian grew up in the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the 1970s war to end white minority rule and a tragedy from those days haunts his life.  In his early twenties, his guilt drove him to leave Africa and live in Britain where he hoped that academic success would save his life from his awful past.  But the danger he encounters on the road into the war zones of Central Asia forces him to make an inner voyage into his own capacity for brutality. He knows the cruelty of war from his earliest childhood, and he knows he is capable of killing to defend himself and his dreams.

Claire, too, has demons that haunt her.  She left gentrified upstate New York years ago in search of adventure and a life beyond the confines of family and tradition.  She is a journalist, but she has strong connections with the CIA that have helped her break stories in war zones like Congo and Iraq. She finds herself in danger of straying into a quagmire of betrayal and uncertainty where the demands of the ‘Intelligence Community’ clash with her morality as a journalist.
The team travels south through Uzbekistan into Tajikistan where Claire’s great friend and CIA contact is badly injured in a mysterious car crash.  She discovers that he was trying to warn her of something, but she cannot find out what.

As the journey progresses, Claire and Sebastian, lovers now, travel through the landscape of modern war. Claire is reading Sebastian’s book about Alexander and Roxane, so she and the reader are taken on a parallel journey into the present and the ancient past.

Professor Abdulov, their Uzbek colleague who has his own shady past with the Soviet KGB, is the main reason they are able to find their way into northern Afghanistan where they meet the warlord General Hakim and his well-educated, English-speaking commander, Mahmood.  General Hakim explains through Mahmood that he wants the team to find the Royal Diaries and make their film.  He is motivated partly by greed as any antiquities they find are his to sell, and partly he, like many Afghans, does not want to see the ancient history of his country erased by the fanatics of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The team begins their work on the ancient site, and soon tensions grow among them.  The menace they have felt on their journey grows by the day and, Rob, the cameraman, who is also in love with Claire and jealous of Sebastian, wants to leave after they have dug up a precious vase that hints at the fact that the Royal Diaries really were hidden here.  General Hakim senses this and wants these experts to continue their work, so he instructs Mahmood to hold them prisoner.  In the moon-drenched nights they share, Sebastian finally tells Claire his bitter secret:  when guerillas (‘terrorists’ as he called them) attacked their farmhouse in the African bush one night, he accidentally killed his brother while he was struggling to fire a rifle too big for him.

Finally, they do indeed find evidence of the Royal Diaries.  The manuscripts have long since crumbled to dust, but on a clay floor under the temple the ink has bled into the earth, leaving the words ‘Babylon . . . Roxane . . . kiss’.  These match the story of Roxane and Alexander as told in an obscure mediaeval Greek pamphlet and prove the existence of the Royal Diaries.

One of General Hakim’s men is an Al Qaeda operative.  It is the moment they have been waiting for.  They have been tracking the team since Tashkent, but now that they have found the crucial evidence, Al Qaeda wishes to destroy it so that no ‘pagan’ traces of Afghanistan’s past can sully their vision of a ‘pure’ Islamic Caliphate.  They kill General Hakim and attack Sebastian, Claire and the others.  But Mahmood saves them, although he is badly wounded himself. The fragments of earth from the clay floor are saved by General Hakim’s quick thinking before he dies and the proof of the Royal Diaries is there for all the world to know the truth of history.  In the chaos, Sebastian grabs a pistol that Abdulov has smuggled in and holds one of the Al Qaeda terrorists down on the floor.  He is sure that he will kill him, as he has killed before. But as his finger tightens on the trigger, he finds he cannot do it.  In this moment of pity, he finally recovers the truth of his humanity.